Sometimes, you just connect with a CD — immediately, powerfully, viscerally. That’s how I reacted when I first heard Sinéad Lohan’s No Mermaid, a 1998 disc that few people heard and fewer bought (her Wikipedia entry claims that No Mermaid ‘enjoyed moderate success’ in Ireland, the UK and the US — which means she sort of got swept up amongst all the Lilith Fair stuff at the time).
Lohan is an Irish singer/songwriter of immense talent and clarity of voice, and a masterful songwriter of great simplicity and effortless depth. Lohan’s material never sounds like it came easily to her, but rather appears to be the result of much consideration. Her lyrics — assertive, independent, searching — are elegantly crafted and thoughtful, exploring the highs and lows of human relationships.
The disc is produced by Malcolm Burn, former collaborator of Daniel Lanois and independently the mastermind behind the subtle but recognizable sound language of several excellent records by Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan, Blue Rodeo, Lisa Germano, Tara MacLean and Patti Smith. Where Lohan’s previous album Who Do You Think I Am (1995) — also quite beautiful — was a folky affair with conventional instrumentation and a couple of Irish radio hits, Mermaid takes on a mysterious sheen, a new commitment to really exploring instrumentation and rhythm. Burn’s tasteful electronic textures —never dated, never out of place, never pandering to the ‘trip hop’ and downtempo predilections of the late 90s — swirl around Lohan’s exquisite voice and simple picked or strummed guitar, engulfing her, challenging her to not be too sweet, cute or folksy. The contrast to Who Do You Think I Am is stark and fundamental; No Mermaid is a mature collaboration between two outstanding musical individualists that represents a unique moment in time.
Sinéad Lohan’s voice is a fantastic instrument. She sings in a way that’s profoundly unaffected and without artifice. To be sure, Ireland has a long history of accomplished female folk singers, and Lohan certainly and obviously carries an immense debt of gratitude to the tradition around which she grew up. What’s so touching about her vocals is her complete disregard for ‘runs,’ embellishments, coloratura — call it what you will, but there’s none of it here. This is sung as straight up as it gets. Lohan can definitely ‘carry a tune,’ as the saying goes. She may define carrying a tune on this record.
As with many artists whose records I have loved deeply, every so often I check in to see what they may be up to these days. I note with some sadness that Sinéad Lohan has basically disappeared from the music industry, and apparently from public life, altogether. She seems to have made the switch from performing and recording musician to motherhood/family life sometime in the early 2000s (a noble and important calling). Malcolm Burn’s website indicates that there’s a new album the two recorded together several years ago which remains unreleased. Her website hadn’t been updated in years and the domain finally expired sometime this year.
Perhaps waiting for another Sinéad Lohan record is an exercise in futility. As she says in ‘People and Tables,’ probably my favourite track on No Mermaid:
waiting for nothing confuses the mind
letting go pieces for no one to find […]
i never wanted, i never wanted and i never got, i never got
i never wanted, i never once wanted and i never got, i never once got
(Sinéad Lohan’s previous record — while certainly no Mermaid — is filled with uniformly appealing, accomplished songs and also highly recommended.)